OKLAHOMA CITY - Philip Hogen, the new chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission, said he would be firm when it comes to enforcing gaming laws, but would impose sanctions on American Indian tribes as a last resort.
"It is certainly not my objective to see how many traffic tickets - so to speak - or closure notices I can hand out," said Hogen, a former federal prosecutor "I want to try to enlist the cooperation of all of the gaming tribes to play by the rules as we see them. And to listen to them if we have a different view of what the rules are or should be."
Recent articles in TIME Magazine and the New York Times criticized the commission for allegedly not being tough enough in regulating Indian gaming.
The criticism appeared just as Interior Secretary Gale Norton swore in Hogen and his two fellow commissioners at a well-attended ceremony Dec. 12 at the National Indian Gaming Commission headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was the first time in the 14-year history of the Commission that the Interior Secretary conducted the swearing-in ceremony at the Commission's headquarters.
The new members of the commission include Hogen, confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Chairman and Cloyce V. Choney of Oklahoma and Nelson W. Westrin of Michigan, both appointed by Secretary Norton as associate members. Commission members serve three-year terms.
"I am delighted with the background and experience that these talented professionals bring to the challenges of this very important Commission," Secretary Norton said, in an implicit reply to the critics. "I believe that they will do an outstanding job of resolving issues, increasing cooperation and building consensus in regulating Indian gaming around the country."
Cloyce V. Choney, a former special agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, served as the chief executive officer for Indian Territory Investigations. During his 26 years with the bureau, he received several awards and commendations for outstanding service, including the Director's Award for Excellence in 2001. A member of the Comanche Nation of Oklahoma, he also served as president of the National Native American Law Enforcement Association from1996-1997.
Nelson W. Westrin served as the first executive director of the Michigan Gaming Control Board, named in 1996 by Gov. John M. Engler. From 1993 to1997, he served as the Racing Commissioner for the State of Michigan. Prior to that, he was Assistant Attorney General for the State of Michigan for 16 years, assigned to the Lottery and Racing Division from 1984 to1993.
Hogen told The Daily Oklahoman that tribes have gotten better at regulating themselves. He said his agency's role "is to lend them credibility, by looking over their shoulders, by setting some standards and making certain that they do it right."
Some Oklahoma tribes have been fined or told to close their casinos for using so-called Class III, Las Vegas-style machines not allowed in the state. Oklahoma requires tribes to use Class II machines.
The commission will first try to persuade a tribe that is playing illegal devices to change its ways, Hogen said. "Only as a last resort will we seek to impose sanctions."
He said unlike elsewhere, some Oklahoma tribes have "tried to push the envelope" on their gaming devices "and, in a number of instances, stepped over the lines."
Hogen said his approach to such problems will not be much different than his predecessor.
"Will we be more or less aggressive?" he asked. "I don't know."
Hogen, 58, of South Dakota, succeeds Montie Deer, who is from Kansas.
As a former U.S. attorney, Hogen prosecuted illegal gambling cases. Later, in private practice, he helped his own tribe, the Oglala Sioux, open a casino. His work included negotiating the Class III compact with South Dakota.
Hogen worked for the commission in the 1990s and also worked for the U.S. Interior Department.
He said he believes the present Indian gaming boom will wane.
"I think in the not-too-distant future, maybe in a few years, somebody's going to open a casino and nobody's going to come because there's just too much competition out there," he said.
The National Indian Gaming Commission was created in 1988, when Congress enacted the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. An independent federal regulatory agency, NIGC is responsible for regulating gambling activities on Indian lands. It consists of three members - a chairman and two associates.
(Staff and Associated Press reports.)